'Iron' is Da Man!

It may have been the moment when Tobey Maguire went emo, a visual gag that gave longtime Spider-man fans a similar physical reaction. Or maybe it was the flailing Fantastic Four franchise, taken out of its superhero element to be forced and family friendly. The Phantom didn't help, and Ghost Rider only staved off the inevitable. The superhero movie was hobbled, and having a hard time maintaining its cinematic relevance.

So when it was announced that Marvel would take control of its own brand and make its own movies from its catalog, some were skeptical. Hollywood knows about film, not a comic book company. Well, all doubts now need to be cast aside. Iron Man proves that, by going to the source, the genre has finally found someone who understands it implicitly.

Tony Stark is a wunderkind, a wealthy weapons manufacturer and all around entrepreneur known as much for his mind as his misdeeds. More comfortable in the headlines than the boardroom, he uses a mission to the Middle East with defense contractor pal Jim Rhodes to introduce The Jericho, an unfathomably destructive missile. A roadside ambush soon finds our cocky CEO in enemy hands, and they have a simple demand. Build them a similar system.

Instead Stark, with the help of a fellow prisoner, constructs a massive metal suit, a human shield capable of indescribable defenses and offensive destruction. Realizing what his company has wrought, the former hostage demands that it change course. This makes his secretary Pepper Potts happy, and his chief advisor and company head Obadiah Stane wary. In the meantime, Stark modifies his suit, turning it into a sleek, super-powered Iron Man. With it, he hopes to right the wrongs his corporate callousness created.

Iron Man is fantastic, a sure fire blockbuster that will leave audiences breathless and fanboys wanting more. And if all that sounds like unhealthy hyperbole, this is the rare film that actually earns it. In an era where summer films tend to aim for opening weekend supremacy (and little else), this is an epic for the ages. Director Jon Favreau fills in the last missing element in his resume by creating a certified crowd pleaser, a F/X driven spectacle that mandates character count as much as CGI.

Just deep enough to avoid superficiality, so 'whiz bang wow' that there's no chance of boredom, two decades of motion picture allegiance to the Marvel/DC universes is rewarded with an epic that wears it's intentions proudly. Favreau and crew are looking to forge myth out of the post-modern jingoism, and they succeed beyond any Spider-manipulative psychobabble.

The genius move among many here is the treatment of Tony Stark both internally and externally. On the outside, much will be written about Robert Downey Jr.'s turn here, and all the praise is warranted. Playing cocksure success and smarts with just enough self spoofing humor to keep from being unbearable, the accomplished actor with the very troubled (and public) past reestablishes his star power with what is, in essence, a collection of everything that contemporary society values.

Stark is attractive, excessively rich, a solid savant, and when push comes to power struggle, capable of tossing aside his blasé business model to fight for what is right. Sure, he also drinks, carouses, and more or less mucks up his personal life, but we love our heroes flawed. From the ancient Greeks to the online pages of TMZ, someone like Tony Stark is our own social reflection.

Internally, the first hour of the film establishes the character's humanity equally well. Stark is given a physical representation of his personal problems - an electromagnetic implant that keeps tiny, needle-sized pieces of shrapnel suspended in his blood stream and away from his heart. From a clunky battery powered device to a smaller and more refined self-contained unit, this visual representation of the conflict going on inside our lead lends the film a great sense of balance. On the one hand, it powers the various alter ego suits. On the other, it also represents the future of his non defense contract corporate approach. It's his Achilles Heal and his newfound conscious, a way of representing both the problems he faces and the realizations he's come to.

By balancing these two elements together, along with some obvious nods to old school effects and new fangled filmmaking, Favreau sets the benchmark for all future comic book efforts. Some have complained that Iron Man is nothing more than an origin story, as if there is something wrong with seeing how an off kilter character like this (a guy dressed up in a high tech flying suit???) got it's inspiration.

The Arab conflict opening is just ambiguous enough to avoid any outright stereotyping (the villains all speak various international languages, including Hungarian) and Stark's solution to the dilemma seems like the sort of outsized mechanical master plan he would come up with. In fact, Iron Man is consistently logical and pragmatic. It doesn't pull out the unbelievable big guns until the mandatory 'good vs. evil' finale.

Along with Downey, Jr. this film has assembled a crackerjack cast. Terrence Howard continues to amaze as an intriguing presence at the sidelines of the main action. His Jim Rhodes is primed to play a much bigger role come franchise time. Also impressive is Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark's gal Friday, Pepper Potts. Intelligent without being imposing, concerned without overplaying that emotion, we get a wonderful byplay between her character and Stark.

Of course, every hero needs a bad guy to bounce off of, and Jeff Bridges is chrome-domed diabolical as Obadiah Stane. He just looks like trouble the moment we see his smug bearded mug, and our suspicions are rewarded. The closing confront may seem like standard cinematic operating procedure, but it sure does deliver.

Indeed, the main element that Iron Man offers that few of its predecessors could provide is solid storytelling matched with excellent entertainment value. Favreau's filmmaking is compact, controlled, and never outside his capacity. As he proved with overlooked family fantasy Zathura, he's not about extremes. Instead, he's one of the few directors who establish an enjoyable equilibrium between the needs of the narrative vs. the mandates of the marketers. From the moment the movie opens to the final close-up, he does nothing but deliver. Anyone who still views him as an actor turned director needs to reconfigure their perspective. In fact, Favreau may be more accomplished behind the lens than in front.

Don't be surprised when the backlash comes, however. Remember how the hype took Tim Burton's Batman down a few unnecessary notches before the film itself reestablished its classicism. Those who've been chiseling away at the genre's tombstone need to take a break - Iron Man reminds us of why the pen and ink paradigm was viewed as profitable in the first place.

Sure, this movie will make scads of cash, but what Favreau accomplishes here is something more timeless. Like Guillermo Del Toro's sensational Hellboy, Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, and Raimi's reverent view of Peter Parker, the story of Tony Stark becomes one of the best translations from comic to cinema ever. It's also a firm reminder of why we go to the movies in the first place.

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